It’s come to my attention that I have a problem.
With the 3 Act Structure.
Not with the 3 Act Structure itself. Not even with it as applied to other things, like movies and plays and other books. (The hubby and I regularly whisper “Act 2” and “Act 3” to ourselves during almost every movie we watch, it’s like habit now. I blame film class.)
No, I have a problem with it when trying to apply it to my own novels.
I have read James Scott Bell’s “Plot and Structure” book, and highly recommend it, by the way. It’s GREAT. I’ve read countless online articles on the structure of story and what goes where. I’ve attended conferences where they talk about this very thing over and over and over again.
I get it. I understand it. It makes total sense!
Until I look at a novel I’ve written, and go “Okay, so where does all this fit in to this 3 Act Structure business?”
Now, the only reason I ask myself this question during editing is because, well, it’s not the best idea for me to go about messing around with the 3 Act Structure in the novel I’m hoping will be my debut. Maybe in later novels, once I get totally famous and no one cares anymore what the heck I do with my stories. But for now, it’s best to stick to the tried and true.
But … I could never figure it out. Suddenly the 3 Act Structure looks like Latin to me. Events in my novel go along to a certain extent with the basic structure, and then around the 2/3 mark, everything goes all wonky and falls apart and ends up looking like a plate of spaghetti after a toddler gets ahold of it.
Then, I question my abilities as a storyteller. I go hide in my writing cave for a few weeks and wonder where I went wrong, why can’t I get this, why is this such a big deal, how can it seem so clear and yet completely not clear at all, and WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME!!?!?!?! I nearly throw my laptop in a lake (yes, really). I nearly decide to trash the entire 138k word novel that took me 3 years to write. (Sometimes that is the best solution, though, really.)
But then, because I’m so damned stubborn, I decided to figure out WTF was really going on here and FIX IT.
Now, I don’t believe in supernatural happenings (much), but I do absolutely believe that opportunities are everywhere, if you keep your eyes open and look for them.
And the very day I was bound and determined to fix this problem of mine, I got an email from Writer’s Digest Tutorials for a Tutorial called “Mastering Story Structure”.
“Why not!?” I thought in delirious rage, after having already gone cross-eyed from reading more articles on Structure that morning and getting nowhere. “I’ll watch this damn video and maybe that will do something for me!”
I haven’t gone to WD much in the last two years, namely because they charge too much for not enough information, compared to pretty much every other writing resource out there on the internet. BUT, like I said, I was desperate. And this tutorial came with a .pdf of something called “Jane’s Plotting Road Map”.
I love graphs. And lists. And anything that can help me keep track of stuff and stay organized. I’m one of those people who thinks shopping in the office supply aisle is nearly equivalent to Christmas morning. (Ahem … don’t laugh or next time you need staples you’ll find I demand ransom first!)
So the idea of this “Plotting Road Map” was enough to convince me to pay the $17 for the 36 minute video. (Albeit with some grumbling.) Let me be clear. I have tried multiple plotting graphs. The normal 3 act graph, the Plot Whisperer’s plot graph, another random plotting spreadsheet I’d found that morning, the 7 Elements of Plot beat sheet, Save the Cat beats … omg, so many graphs. The novel fell along nicely on all of them until that one part 2/3s through when everything just stopped.
So here it was … Jane’s Plotting Road Map. Could it be the Magic Pill I was hoping for?
I watched the video. It offered little on structure I hadn’t heard before, but did have a few very interesting, new takes on some things. Then Jane went over her Road Map.
I was floored.
It was nothing like any other plotting graph I’d ever used.
IT HAD SPACE FOR SUBPLOTS!
“Yeah, so? Who cares about subplots?” you may be asking.
Well, apparently I do. A lot. Apparently I care about subplots so much, they were the thing that kept stopping me in every single other plotting graph!
Because they didn’t have space on those graphs. They had no where to go. There was no way to keep track of them in the organizational, analytical, logical side of my brain. They got all tangled up with the main plot toward the end of the novel, and since none of the structure articles or graphs gave them the time of day (other than a brief, passing mention, maybe), I didn’t even consciously think about them. I didn’t even entirely realize they were there. Which meant I couldn’t identify them as the potential cause of my plotting/editing woes. Which meant I wanted to throw my laptop in the lake.
So thank you, Jane Cleland. Thank you Writer’s Digest. That $17 was well invested, after all.
I took Jane’s Road Map, and I plotted an entire fantasy novel’s main plot and two subplots in one day. Not even that. Maybe an hour.
A FREAKING HOUR. FOR A WHOLE BOOK. ALL MAIN AND SUB EVENTS.
I’ve never been able to know a book to that extent in the entire 20 years (—holy frick let’s not think about that—) I’ve been writing novels!!!!
Then I took Jane’s Road Map and put the events of PRIMUS onto it. (That’s the novel I almost trashed, that caused all this trouble to begin with.)
I discovered there was nothing wrong with me as a storyteller at all. I found out I had already, instinctively or subconsciously, put the main events and the subplot events where they were supposed to go! But … laying them all out on the Road Map also showed me I had too much ending. The book should end before it ends … which also solves another problem I knew I had: this novel was a little too long for an ideal debut novel.
Putting PRIMUS on the Road Map showed me exactly what I needed to fix in this round of edits. By making me pull the subplots away from the main plot and think about their real purpose and the development of those separate story lines, I was able to see precisely how the last 1/3 of the novel needed to be adjusted to make everything line up as it should.
And that’s why I kept getting stuck at the 2/3 mark on all those other structure graphs. The real problems started there … but those other graphs had no way of telling me what those problems were, and so I couldn’t begin to fathom how to fix them.
“Well why didn’t you just hire a developmental editor to tell you what was wrong with it!?” you may be asking.
Two reasons: 1) This novel is HUGE. Developmental editors are very expensive, especially when reading HUGE novels. If I can do the bulk of the heavy lifting myself first and save everyone time and money, why not? And 2) From beta reader feedback and my own deepening world-building on these edits, I knew I needed to make some substantial story adjustments. I didn’t want to hand a developmental editor a story that no longer made total sense, as that would make it near impossible for them to do their job correctly, and I’d be paying them to tell me things I already knew, at that point. So no, that wasn’t an option for me here.
Instead, I found Jane and her Road Map.
Last night I outlined the adjustments to be made in the second half of PRIMUS.
Today I begin on that new work.
This is just another example about how one of the most important things in life, in doing anything, is to figure out how you work best. Sometimes it takes a lot of floundering about, and it always takes constant experimentation, but pay attention to what works for you. Try to make things easier on yourself, one way or another. For me in this instance, it was something as simple as subplots! This Road Map will become an essential part of my story planning in all future novels, I know that already.
Maybe it will be for you, too.
In case it could be, here is Jane’s book, which I’ll be reading now for sure.
And here is that Tutorial, if you’d like to check it out yourself!
So there you have it. How one worksheet managed to save my novel from the trash bin!
Until next time, I’m off to edit!
What is a plotting, writing or editing obstacle you’ve faced, and how did you overcome it? Or if you are a reader, do you ever find yourself evaluating a book’s structure?